Prospective BBC Trust Head Takes Grilling from U.K. Politicians

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Rona Fairhead says she can balance the BBC governing body job with non-executive directorships at HSBC and PepsiCo

The U.K. government’s preferred choice to head up the governing body of the BBC was questioned by members of parliament Tuesday as part of her selection process.

Rona Fairhead, who is set to become the BBC Trust’s first female director if appointed, was quizzed on various aspects on her suitability for the role, her opinions regarding the public broadcaster and her previous and current positions.

Fairhead denied assertions that the government had backed her appointment because she was female. “I am a woman, but I felt that the process was a standard process,” she said, pointing to her experiencing with the media as a former chairman and CEO of the Financial Times Group.

She left that job with a pay-off amounting to more than $1.6 million, something she claimed was “relatively standard." But she dismissed comparisons to the BBC’s recent controversy regarding top-level pay-offs to outgoing senior executives, saying that her job would be a "different" position with an organization like the BBC. Her departure from Pearson, the Financial Times’ parent company, also saw her receive shares in the company, of which she admitted to still holding a “significant number." Asked whether she would sell the shares upon appointment, she said she would take advice and do so if there was a “significant conflict” of interests, adding that that would not be her preferred choice.

Fairhead still holds positions as non-executive director of HSBC and PepsiCo, but claimed she could balance this work alongside the three-day £100,000 BBC Trust position, saying she is used to sleeping on planes and working seven days a week. “But if I decide that is it not tenable, my primary role is at the BBC,” she said.

If appointed, Fairhead would succeed Chris Patten, who stepped down from the BBC Trust in May citing ill health. But she refused to pass judgment on her predecessor’s performance, despite one of the panel members claiming that if she repeated his action she’d be a “disaster."

“It’s on the public record and subject to a number of reviews that mistakes were made,” she acknowledged.

Fairhead also fielded questions regarding two of the most notable loss-making ventures of the BBC in recent years, the Digital Media Initiative IT project that was scrapped last year at a cost of some $160 million to U.K. license fee payers, and the corporation’s purchase of the Lonely Planet travel publishing empire that it sold in 2013 at a loss of $128 million. Regarding the Digital Media Initiative, Fairhead admitted that it was a “significant amount of money” to write off, but said it was a “brave decision” and the “right decision” to stop throwing good money after bad. On the subject of Lonely Planet, she said she thought the purchase was a “wrong decision” because the travel publishing sector “was a perfectly well functioning commercial market which didn’t need the BBC as an element of it.”

As for her personal thoughts regarding the BBC, Fairhead said that she “woke up and went to bed” watching or listening to the broadcaster’s output. She listed Doctor Who, Match of the Day, Sherlock and The Honourable Woman among the series she watches, joking that unnamed members of her family even enjoyed The Great British Bake Off.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter later Tuesday, U.K. Culture Secretary Sajid Javid revealed that the select committee questioning Fairhead had "unanimously approved" her appointment.

Sep. 9, 10 a.m. Updated to include quote from Sajid Javid